Los Angeles Times


The Pakistani Army Wednesday accused the U.S. military of an "unprovoked and cowardly" airstrike that resulted in the deaths of 11 Pakistani soldiers, threatening the cooperation between the two countries in combating terrorism.

In an unusually strong statement, the army added that it reserved the right to protect citizens from unwarranted aggression.

As U.S. officials expressed regret for the deaths without claiming responsibility, the incident threatened to aggravate already tense relations between Washington and Islamabad, whose newly elected government has faced accusations from the U.S. military that it has failed to crack down on extremists in Pakistan's western tribal areas.

A senior official acting as an intermediary between the two countries said there was a flurry of high-level phone calls and meetings late Wednesday attempting to defuse the incident. Top Pakistani officials were so irate that they summoned U.S. Ambassador Ann Patterson to the foreign office to complain, the official said.

"Nobody wants this to become bigger than it is," said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. airstrikes in Pakistani territory have occurred with some regularity in recent months, and are a recurring source of friction.

According to U.S. officials, many of the previous attacks have targeted Taliban and Al-Qaida forces. But such incidents stoked the ire of Pakistanis who see the strikes as an infringement on their sovereignty.

The State Department expressed regret for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers after a gunfight involving U.S. troops on the Afghanistan border escalated into pitched battle Tuesday night, leading to a U.S. airstrike that Pakistani officials said killed 11 members of the Frontier Corps.

A Western military official in Pakistan familiar with operations in the tribal region said that officials have become increasingly concerned that the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary forces charged with monitoring activities at the border, is not properly trained and is believed to sometimes harbor Taliban and Al-Qaida forces.

Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman, called Wednesday's incident "regrettable" and said it illustrated the need for better cross-border communications between the two militaries.

According to U.S. military officials in Washington and Afghanistan, a U.S.-led patrol that had moved into Kunar Province as part of an offensive came under small-arms fire just 200 yards from the Pakistani border. One official said the attackers fled into Pakistan when U.S. soldiers defended themselves.

A U.S. military spokesman at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, the Afghan capital, said the operation in Kunar had been cleared with Pakistani authorities ahead of time and insisted coalition forces stopped short of the Pakistani border after pursuing the attackers.

The spokesman added, however, that coalition forces began firing artillery and called in an airstrike once they had identified the "anti-Afghan forces" on a live video feed from an unmanned surveillance drone. But Pakistani military sources said the U.S. warplanes bombed a Pakistani border outpost about 60 miles northwest of Peshawar.

The Pakistani sources said the U.S. forces were working with the Afghan Army when the firefight broke out, and accused Afghan troops of crossing into Pakistan to set up a checkpoint.

Maulvi Umar, a spokesman for the Pakistan Taliban, told the Dawn newspaper that eight of the group's fighters were killed repelling an attempt by NATO and Afghan soldiers to push into Pakistan. The U.S. military denied that account.

Pakistan's new ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, said his government will not regard the strike as an act of intentional hostility. "We will try to move beyond this and to not let this hold our relationship back," he said.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.